[Sugarman] from Daniel re: Workshops

Daniel Herwitz herwitz at umich.edu
Fri May 30 14:08:25 SAST 2014

Dear All

Keith asked me to repost my recent note to this email address. Thanks and
best Daniel

I did not attend the second week of the workshop and so was not privy to
the organization of themes mandated by participants. I do want to add one
thing in the light of what the group seems to have evolved. Namely we have
lost the initial impetus for the workshops, namely what we, with you in the
lead, submitted to the Mellon Foundation as the intellectual basis for the
workshops. Now this is in itself hardly catastrophic. Popular democracy is
always about shifting initial principles written by the few (call it
constitutional amendment), but the initial idea was a really fine one, and
I think of great benefit to serious work in the South African academy and
also the American. I speak of the initial intuition which those of us
writing the Mellon text had, that while historical studies, and not simply
historical studies but also literary studies in South Africa have suffered
from an excessive case of empiricism, minute attention to detail,
provincialized by a lack of cosmopolitan comparison, no doubt aided and
abetted by the cultural boycotts of the late Apartheid period, the American
academy has suffered the boundless projection and profiling of theory,
which in response to the marginalization of the humanities from public life
(especially by the media) in America, has foregrounded its best inheritance
from the culture wars of the 1980s, themselves the result of American
identity politics (the women's movement, black consciousness,
anti-colonial/anti-military industrial leftism, etc...), into a critique of
representation which generated a great deal of new and significant theory
in the 1970s and 1980s but has gradually morphed into a groundless,
contextual-less, floating brand which seldom lands in the robustness of
context but rather at airports, academic conferences and all too many
humanities centers. This bifurcation between American intellectual work and
South Africa, is hardly the only thing going in either humanities worlds,
and there are many other things happening. But it is central enough to
warrant serious intellectual scrutiny of actual writing/scholarship in both
places, which was going to be part of what would ground the workshops, or
part of them. Now this project might not appeal to all, but the
rapprochment between branded theory (with its particular history in
America) and excessive empiricism (with its British intellectual tradition
in Southern Africa combined with a strong sense of particular context,
represents two kinds of provincialism, which want breaking through
(breaking bad?). The idea of the actual study of texts, that is, work done
in both countries, seemed a way of grounding what can otherwise be an
all-over-the-place conversation seeking all manner of input into
everythingness, an intellectual department store in the American mode with
the theory section over on the left, the technology on the right, the
discount empiricism at the back, the plastic containers in the art
department, etc... Call that theory in the south. Wiser has among the most
exciting breakthroughs going on already, I mean the edited volumes Achille
and Sarah have done on Johannesburg, which are at once highly attentive to
the details of context (the city of Joburg), and risk taking in bringing in
new kinds of ideas. I might also refer to a predecessor of their fine work
in the book edited by Ivan Vladislavic called Blank, which Hilton Judin put
together and in which I myself had a piece in 1998. In turn it would be
work identifying some really good books from America which break out,
retaining interest in context, I mean real interest, not passing or
superficial or trendy, and which take risks in the bringing in of new ideas
(or the remaking of old) to liven the story or analysis. And speaking to
the original theme of the Mellon Workshops, theory/empiricism, in the light
of these serious breakthrough books. I have the feeling, and please tell me
I'm wrong if I am, that Derek Peterson, and you yourself, would appreciate
at least one of the retinue of workshops to follow on this theme. I
certainly would, for what it's worth.



Daniel Herwitz
Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor
Department of Comparative Literature
University of Michigan
2012 Tisch Hall
435 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003
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